Like millions of other residents of Sao Paulo, Telma Rodrigues spends a large part of her waking hours going to and from work. She hates the commute, and not just because public transportation is packed, slow and inefficient.
She finds it boring.
Now there’s light at the end of the tunnel, and it has nothing to do with new bus lanes or subway lines. As of last weekend, the government will give people such as Rodrigues a new “cultural coupon” worth $20 a month — enough, the 26-year-old said, to buy a book to enliven her daily ride.
The money, loaded on a magnetic card, is designated only for purposes broadly termed cultural — although that category could include dance lessons and visits to the circus in addition to books and movie tickets.
In a country battling poverty on an epic scale, the initiative has won widespread praise as a worthy and yet relatively cheap project. But it has provoked questions.
Is it the state’s job to fund culture? How will poor Brazilians use the money? How do you, or even should you, convince people that their money will be better spent on Jules Verne rather than Justin Bieber?
“What we’d really like is that they try new things,” Culture Minister Marta Suplicy said in a telephone interview. “We want people to go to the theater they wanted to go to, to the museum they wanted to go to, to buy the book they wanted to read.”
Although it has made significant advances in recent years, the South American nation is still relatively isolated and many of the poorest Brazilians are unsophisticated in their tastes.
They pick up an average of four books a year, including textbooks, and finish only two of them, a study published last year by the Sao Paulo state government showed.
Almost all of Brazil’s 5,570 municipalities have a local library, but only one in four has a bookshop, theater or museum, and only one in nine boasts a cinema, according to the government’s statistics bureau.
When asked what they most like to do in their spare time, 85 percent of Brazilians answered “watch television.”
The new, rechargeable coupon, known in Portuguese as a Vale Cultura, is to be made available to workers who earn up to $300 a month, or about five times Brazil’s minimum wage.
So far, 356,000 people have signed up for the program, and government officials hope as many as 42 million could eventually join, helped by firms that enroll their employees and companies that sign up to accept the card in lieu of cash. Several credit card firms are making and distributing the cards.
State-run companies are obliged to participate, and government ministers are actively encouraging unions to demand the Vale Cultura in their annual wage negotiations.
“This is innovative and cool, and no one in the world is doing anything like it,” Suplicy said. “My hope is that it will be revolutionary for culture here. It provides an opportunity for people who never had it and, at the same time, has an impact on cultural production.”
Such grand ideological gestures are not uncommon in Brazil, particularly under the Workers’ Party government that has ruled for the past 11 years. The administration’s cash-transfer program — which provides monthly grants of $15 to $125, as long as children go to school and are provided with prenatal and postnatal care — has lifted at least 20 million people from poverty and improved Brazil’s shocking position as one of the world’s most unequal nations.
But the projects are sometimes divisive. Although the cash-transfer program was replicated all over the developing world — and helped the Workers’ Party to three consecutive election victories at home — it is seen by some as a golden trap for the poor.
Suplicy pointed out that the majority of the money flowing through the Vale Cultura will stay in Brazil and give vital sustenance to local producers. But she also stressed that people need time to develop their tastes.
“The point is social inclusion,” she said. “But I am under no illusions that it will happen quickly. It is a big challenge, and it is going to take time.”
What the Vale Cultura could do is have an immediate impact on democratizing access to culture.
Right now, thousands of movies, plays, books and concerts are dependent on corporate sponsorship, and big Brazilian companies invest $800 million a year on cultural projects in return for tax breaks.
But that money too often goes to the safest and most insipid ideas, said André Forastieri, a former publisher and now cultural commentator at one of Brazil’s big TV channels. The Vale Cultura gives power directly to the people.
“The Vale Cultura is not to be celebrated as a huge step forward,” Forastieri said. “But it is better than having the money invested by bureaucrats and marketing directors of big companies.”
Most people acknowledge that the majority of the money will probably go on what might charitably be described as low culture — the self-help books written by singing priests, concert DVDs from salacious pop stars, and shows or downloads by sexually explicit rappers.
But like the culture minister, who thinks people will gradually become more demanding, Forastieri said the first step is getting people involved.
“Rap is considered part of the culture in the U.S., but 30 years ago they were trying to ban it,” he said. “It’s stupid to think the money will be spent homogeneously. There’s no better and more democratic way than to put the money in the hands of the people to spend it as they want.”
And people are seizing that opportunity. One of the most encouraging aspects of the program is that the most enthusiastic backers are not multinationals, private banks or other big employers.
Almost three-quarters of the initial signatories are small mom-and-pop firms, alerted to the idea by their employees.
“My workers told me about it and suggested we sign up,” said Mayra Toledo, owner of a patisserie in Sao Paulo. “I thought it sounded interesting, so I did, and all four of my employees will get it. It’s something that is good for them and cheap to do.”
Other workers, who like Rodrigues are hopeful of joining the program, said the money can help them open unexpected doors.
“There are so many ways to spend it,’’ said Kath dos Santos, a 26-year-old office worker, who manages to buy movie tickets but said that art exhibitions and theater have remained out of reach.